"A Circle of Men" by William Auten

The story I started telling you about? William. The dogman. He’s more than that now, I know, but sometimes that’s how I remember him. He goes by William now, sometimes Will, which he likes, unless he first meets people and then it’s William. You have to get to know him as Will. It comes naturally after a while, and then the wall falls down. He went by Billy for the longest time. He was someone else, too, when he was a dogman. He had another name back then, and before he was a dogman, he went by yet another name. Several names, in fact. Something inside him told him to not introduce himself to anyone as Billy or William. This happened before he was a dogman, between these two points in his life, one following after the other. But it also happened after he couldn’t stomach being a dogman anymore. When he talks about those two points, he blurs that space, like a motorboat churning around buoys. Not that anyone ever really asked him who he was or cared to get know him, especially when he was a dogman. It was better, he learned, to not get to know too many people and for people to not know him. But he was prepared, if a stranger asked him who he was, to reply with some made-up name right there on the spot. Sometimes he answered to Jack. Once he was Sean. Mostly, though, he went by Jim. 

This started in college. I guess it had something to do with where he went to college and why he went at all. He got in at the last minute and at a very small college no one had really heard of, especially not him. It was in the middle of nowhere. It was in June when he was accepted, and he had applied after he graduated from high school. He had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He just picked it because it wasn’t anywhere near anyone or anything he knew. Anyway, he got in to college at the last minute, and he found himself to be pretty much an outsider even there. He was more alone and more isolated than before. He knew no one. He quickly wanted out, not to go back to what he knew, but out. But he soon realized that the one thing he had brought with him—his background—was something he could change into whatever he wanted it to be.

It took some time remembering what he told people, and he felt ashamed for telling them something untrue, but he also felt good, seeing the gap between him and them. It was like starting over in many ways, so he said lots of things to lots of people. He raced cars. He was from Iowa, but he had lived in California before coming here. He said he didn’t go to that high school, but he knew people from that high school and he knew about that high school because it was used as the high school in the movie version of The Outsiders. In real life, he had graduated from that high school. He said during his senior year he was asked to play football by the head coach after a good summer at the gym. So he said he played football until he said he didn’t play football and preferred art instead until he wanted to play sports again, maybe baseball this time. He was in a punk band. He listened to rap. He was in a grunge band. He played guitar. He played drums. He couldn’t sing, not in the sense of American Idol, but he could belt out notes at the top of his lungs like the guy from Led Zeppelin, so he said. He said he preferred classical music to anything else.

Anyway, he learned to juggle words and these other half-truths. The more he did it, the more it came naturally to him and the better he got at it. I should say, though, the lies never really got outrageous. Nothing about fancy cars or houses. They just always seemed to move around who he was at that time. They were small corrections, like clockwise rather than counter-clockwise. It was just doing something different with what he had, where he came from. If he was going to start over, then he might as well do it the way he wanted. He could be someone else, say he was someone else, and then repeat it. “My dad works his fingers to the bone for us, even if he does drink a lot,” he said, adding that image of toughness, something I guess cubicle guys like his dad don’t have or have to make up in certain situations. It was always a little different each time.

And being someone who didn’t want to go in a straight line got him into that stuff—the dog stuff and the stuff that came before being a dogman. Not a whole lot of stuff before the dog stuff but enough to make an impact. It’s like the old saying about rain showers and a storm, the difference between the two, where they start, how they start, and the after-effects. 

He got involved with a group of people at college you wouldn’t have imagined. Actually, only a handful of them were college students, but they weren’t really college students, like the ones you’ve described to me where you went to school. They were people he met at places he started going to after he didn’t want to be in college anymore. He went to some clubs in the city with them. They were on the “ten-year college plan.” They wanted to do nothing else except drink, smoke, and go to clubs or apartments of guys they knew. It was always “Yeah, I know a guy.” That’s how it starts, and it feeds itself by looping around and around, picking up whoever wants to be in it. It never goes anywhere else. It stays in that pattern until it’s broken, which could be from the outside or the inside.

Anyway, one of these guys sold low-on-the-pole drugs. Pot and acid. Nothing serious. Just to party with or hang out with your friends. Not your friends, I know, but I know you told me you had friends back then who had friends like that or knew people like that. You told me you knew where the line was and got out of there whenever things felt like they were about to dive down. I remember you said that was “a lifetime ago.” You told me you understood. But these were his friends back then, the guys who had these apartments with girls and pools and access to things in the city. They embraced him. Actually, he wasn’t anything special or specific to them. They didn’t care. They didn’t care where he came from or who he was, as long as he was “down” with it all. Which he was. His parents were so far removed from his life. His old life was way back in that other place where he had been someone else. Now that I think about it, I guess they were more associates than friends—just some guys and girls—mainly because he was Jim to them, not Billy or Will or even William. He liked it when some of them starting calling him “J.”

One of these guys dated a girl whose sister worked at an escort service. It was advertised as “Oklahoma City’s first choice for bachelor-party services.” The ads had girls dressed as nurses and as cheerleaders. Confetti and streamers and balloons and stereo speakers floated behind them. There was good money there for guys who were willing to escort the escorts. This one guy knew of an opening for something like that. “Yeah, I want to,” he said, nodding to this guy and lying that he knew how to use a gun. Fun, safe, and discrete, the ad promised. And it was for a little while. 

And then one job dropped out beneath him. He knew, going into it, like with the dogs, what kind of guys these were in the first place. All these bodies were pressed into this tiny house in the middle of Cooke County, which is nothing more than one big empty square on a map, except for the big state pen and the Choctaw-tribe casino. It took a while to drive out there, and as soon as the tires hit the dirt road, he knew right away they were there on someone else’s terms. It was pitch black above the road, the trees disappearing into that blackness. No lights along the country roads. Only these two beams of grey, dusty headlights in front of him.

The house was probably what you’re thinking a house like that would be. Wood paneling, ratty carpet, a satellite dish attached to a corner of the roof. The smell of mold and mildew inside the humid, tiny house. There were lots of cars on the grass and a truck in the driveway, but there were only three guys inside the house. When he and the girls got out of the car, these dogs started barking and snapping at them. Those dogs were chained to a car axle that was buried in the front yard. When he was a dogman, the dogs were in these small cages that were so close together the dogs growled and snapped at each other all the time. They could smell each other. He never forgot that. Anyway, once inside, he did his best to stay focused on relaxing in the living room while the two girls went into the bedroom with two of the guys. The third man in the kitchen, with a shaved head and blue tattoos up and down his neck, asked him to have a seat, which he shook off with a no, leaning against the front door. The man in the kitchen then told him it’d be better if he sat down. “Chair or sofa. It don’t matter. I just get real nervous if someone ain’t sitting down, you know?” the man in the kitchen said, having stopped stacking boxes of decongestants.

The bedroom became very quiet except for the music, which kept playing as both girls ran out. They had their clothes in their arms. One of the girls said the scrawny guy with pockmarks wasn’t being gentlemanly at all. The man in the kitchen had a gun. The kitchen had no lights on. It was the first time anyone had pointed a gun at him, and it was the first time he ever pointed a gun at someone. Not the last time, but the first. After some yelling, he said he just wanted to leave with the girls and he’d pay for it all. He opened his wallet and threw out all the cash he had. It was all the money he was responsible for. Not his money, but the money from clients. Actually, there was a green light in the kitchen, like a green haze, which he remembered seeing in the rearview mirror as they sped away.

That was the end of that. He said it was because of the money, but it was really because of something else he felt afterwards. It was time for him to go anyway. He’d been flirting with one of the escorts, and word was getting around that he was getting some things for free while on the clock.

Then the dogs showed up. Things accelerated from there. It happened by chance, but given his trajectory it’s not hard to understand why it happened. He wasn’t looking for it, but there it was. Sooner or later these things, after you do them enough, get absorbed. Sooner or later these things find you. Not you, I know. Anyway, a guy knew a guy. It was a chance to make money with the dogs. 

Actually, a girl knew a guy. The girl he had a thing with had a guy friend who was into the dogs. They all met one night at a party at an apartment. He knew it was wrong what he was hearing, but the sound of money was louder. He liked the feeling of earning a lot of money, of being his own boss, of having a certain taste build up in his mouth. He didn’t have to wear a suit or tie or sit at a desk all day. It was a kind of freedom and release. It was a way of surviving by way of making his own direction. His parents had no idea what he was up to. He confused them, looped them somewhere else, told them what they wanted to hear, long enough to say he got a job at a restaurant and was going to work there until he felt ready to go back to school. He said he’d made lots of friends.

You probably know that the dogs were mostly pit bulls. They were all pit bulls. You said they’re called bull terriers, or sometimes people leave out the “bull” part of it—American Staffordshire terriers—when they’re for sale in certain areas, especially when nice families and kids are present or when they need to have an image makeover. I know you understand this. You said you like pit bulls and feel that they get a bad rap. You’ve shown me pictures when they’re young. I know how cute they are when they’re puppies. They have a bad image. They’re not born that other way. Someone makes them that other way. You said they are very sweet, but it’s more challenging with the ones at the shelter. Sometimes you just never know, you said. 

So at first, when he heard “get in on the dogs,” he imagined dog races and vests with neon numbers on the side, vests on the dogs, the kind of races with the fake rabbit jerking around a circle dirt track while the dogs chase it. Like horses, he imagined, but with dogs and a plastic rabbit.

The first night he saw the dogs and the dirt and the pieces of plywood bolted together, making a fence, the images of Florida and palm trees and Miami Vice fell away. The plywood fences had red arrows spray-painted in the middle, all the tips of the arrows pointing the same way. Blood was on the boards. The arrows had nothing to do with direction and everything to do with where the bolts were to be screwed in. If those bolts weren’t there, the plywood fence would topple over, and there’d be no ring. He found out much later that in the early days the fence was nothing more than a circle of men. He didn’t ask about this. He was told about it by someone who never spoke again to him even when they made eye contact, which was rare and something he eventually learned he shouldn’t do anyway. He was Jim back then. 

You probably think all this happened underground. In a way it did. It felt like it was underground, given the darkness inside the warehouse. There were these skylights, though, but not much light came in through them. The light was faded blue and didn’t really brighten the place. The light just cut squares into the very top darkness, the pitch-black part, of the warehouse’s curved metal roof. There was that time a tornado was on its way, and the hail was louder than the barking. So I guess it was underground in some ways, but not with gangs or like it was for an initiation into something. They were all unemployed or underemployed. They talked about the money and the rush of watching. I guess in a way it was an initiation. He never owned or trained a dog, only placed bets on them, if you can understand that. 

Do you remember that poem you wanted me to read? It’s when the speaker was young and went downtown to the bus station and had no money to get home, and this old down-on-his-luck homeless guy puts his hook, not his hand, on him and gives him money and whispers something to him. We’re never told what was said. At the end of the poem, the speaker said it wasn’t the money he needed, but he took it anyway.

Anyway, when you really get to the heart of it, this place with the dogs was for some men who wanted to watch this and make money watching this. Sometimes the fights lasted for hours. Sometimes it was just a few minutes. The dogs were of equal size. Besides, it’s all image, right? “The money is good. I like the spirit of the fighting. I was broke and laid off,” one guy said. “Everybody knows it’s wrong, but it’s fast money and no one tells us what to do in here.”

I remember you told me that Queen Elizabeth watched too, that it was like the Super Bowl or March Madness for them. It’s crazy to think that the queen was into that. I know it’s not the current queen, but the queen who ruled when all those writers were alive, those writers you showed me. Shakespeare, right? I still wonder if he ever went by Will or Billy. I heard that what we think we know about him is nothing more than a collection of stories or what people said about him, passing it around like that childhood game “telephone.” It’s like what we’re supposed to know about him is more important than what did happen to him in his life.

And so there was this drop that made it feel like it was the bottom for him. I think you know what I mean. They were always in an old warehouse out in the middle of the foothills. The people, I mean. And the dogs, too. See in other places, they do this in basements, but basements aren’t possible in Oklahoma because of the ground everything sits on. You can’t be in it, but you can above it. You could see the lights of Oklahoma City from far away because it’s so open out there. City twinkling on a prairie. The tan land with black-and-green scrubbed foothills.

A good story has to have a bad guy, right? Someone you don’t really cheer for. Someone who can’t change, or doesn’t want to change. Someone you just maybe want to watch, watch how they operate in the world, but not get too close to them. A foil, you called it. The bad guy’s often just a foil, like in those stories you got me to read. The bad guy’s pretty set in his ways. We just like to watch him do his thing because he’s really good at it. I think it’s the only thing he’s really good at. He’s pretty crafty and only considers how outcomes will affect him, not others around him. Maybe we watch him because he’s so good at being selfish. Maybe we like that. A good story has to have this character. Or, I guess, a good story has to have change in the main character, whether the main character is the good guy or the bad guy. Protagonist and antagonist, right? He can be either protagonist or antagonist. He can even be a she, but in this story he’s a he.

Remember when you introduced me to the Boss? You played that one song for me with the line about that guy who got into some trouble early on in his life but was now scraping by every day to make a new life, and sometimes he doesn’t like it. There’s that line: “Can’t get the smell from my hands.”

I know a lot of people want stories that have change for the better, for the good. And I know that what the dogs did to each other and the conditions they were in shouldn’t be described. Nor can the amount of money or the freedom that kind of money makes. I guess if the details were to be described they would reveal too much. They’d move away from the story’s real point. I guess that’d be called chasing a white rabbit. He saw what was going on around him. He wanted out. I guess not being attached to anyone got him out of all that. It was just as easy to never show up there again as it was to get in. But he had to lie once he did get out in order to re-make his life all over again. But what if the thing that finally pushed him out could be described without revealing too much? What if they could be given? The details, I mean. 

I wanted at first to tell you that he regrets it—the dogman stuff and the stuff before that—but he also knows the money got him to a better point in his life. Like a slingshot. Then I changed it so that he regrets all of it now and that all the dogs were rescued. It’s a story. A story has to end on a good note, right? A story has to have a hero. A foil to the bad guy.

I just want to say that all this reminds me of why I liked you so much when we first met. We could just talk and talk about anything, where we’ve been, what we did before we met each other. We still do, and after some time together, I’m glad we still do. I like knowing that I can tell you anything, if I want. And you listen, not judging and not saying a whole lot unless it’s called for, like that one time we heard those sounds after we moved in. We couldn’t believe how dark it was and how much noise went on in the woods behind us. Trees snapping. Lots of rustling and scuffling. It got worse during October when all the leaves had fallen. It’s true what they said to us after we got here: the Shenandoah Valley was on fire.

We were on the screened-in back porch and wrapped up in blankets on the couch. We had those candles on that little wood box that had apples in it. It was so dark and cool after sunset. We heard that sound way back in the woods. It sounded like dragging and then choking. It went on for so long. We didn’t know what it was. It scared me more than you. I guess hearing those sounds made me jittery, brought back old memories about that story. After a while, I had to tell it to you. Start it, I mean. I never really finished it. I think I described it to you because I had to. You said to close my eyes. You put your hands on my chest and said it wasn’t what I thought it was.

Photo credit: Eddie Raburn

Photo credit: Eddie Raburn

William Auten's first novel is currently under consideration with publishing houses and agents. He has drafted a second novel and has compiled his first short story collection. His work has appeared in Blast Furnace, Cahoodaloodaling, Drunken Boat, failbetter, Hayden's Ferry Review, Literary Salt, Nimrod,Notre Dame Review, Canada's Saturday Night Reader, Sycamore Review, Terrain, and other publications. Work was read at the bicentennial celebration for North American Review in 2015. Having lived in Iowa, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Virginia, he now calls California home. www.williamauten.com.

Posted on July 17, 2015 .